Friday, August 10, 2012

Who Killed the Chauffeur (and who cares?)

Russel D McLean

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In The Big Sleep, there’s a great moment when Marlowe is called out to the murder of the Sternwood family Chauffeur. It’s a great scene and one that serves to move the story forward, but rumour has it that when Howard Hawks was filming the movie, he called Chandler and asked,

Who killed the Chauffeur?

And it’s a fair question. No one really knows. And the rumour is that Chandler himself responded quite blithely that he didn’t either, making it just another instance of his maxim that when the plot slows down you have a man walk through the door with a gun*

It’s a massive plot hole, or at least certain readers may consider it as such. But you know, I like it. I like it a lot because it makes me think of life.

In life nobody knows everything.

And nobody gets to know everything.

I like to leave a few loose ends in my novels. Of course, given that I’m writing a sequence in the McNee books, one or two of those get picked up later. A few questions from The Lost Sister will be answered in Father Confessor (but yet a few more might be raised), but sometimes there are things that you don’t need to know. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know them. And its more fun if you can argue or conjecture about what really happened.

Moving up to the modern age (ish), one of my favourite ever episodes of the Sopranos (me and ten million others) was the one where Paulie and Christopher take a Russian out to the woods to kill him. He escapes, they think they shoot him in the head, but then they can’t find the body. They get lost in the woods. They go through real bad times. But they don’t find the Russian. They don’t know if he’s dead or alive. But the point of the story is not the Russian, but how they cope with being lost in the cold and alone with each other. Oh, and by the way, if you have never watched the Sopranos here is your spoiler alert.

 Lots of people spent the rest of the series conjecturing whether the Russian was really dead, and what might happen if he returned. But he never did. And nothing ever came of the fact they killed this guy. Because it didn’t matter. And because, well, why would anything have come of that? It’s a fine dramatic line between thematic webs and daft coincidence. And the fact that we never really did know about the Russian was brilliant. Because it felt real. Because sometimes in life, you do things, or you see things, and they don’t come back to haunt you in some ironic way or have any real impact on anything again even if, in a made-up, all-the-dots-connect-world they surely should have.

Now I’m not saying I do anything as well as either of these examples, or that I use such extremes, but I do believe that sometimes you don’t have to know everything for a story to work. In fact I’d rather not be told everything and be able to imagine a world that continues beyond the confines of what I’ve seen of it.

And, really, I don’t care who killed the Chauffeur, but I do care that it got Marlowe to the right place at the right time to answer the bigger questions. And that while we never found out who did it, it didn’t feel forced or unnatural. In fact, it felt real.

*metaphorically speaking


Dana King said...

I'm with you all the way on this. Things happen in life that may, or may not, have an impact on what we're focusing on at the time, and we don;t know if they do or not. I always viewed the unresolved chauffeur's death as a bit of misdirection, though, to be honest, I kind of forget about him myself until i read of the Hawks/Chandler discussion.

This works well in series, as you mentioned in the Sopranos. It allows the author to leave Easter eggs for loyal readers (oh, yeah, i remember that.) It also allows the writer to explore that loose end in another book.

Tying things up too neatly can ruin the feel of a book. A lot of books have great grit and verisimilitude, only to be remembered as not as good as they should be because the author jumped through too many hoops tying things up.

Anonymous said...

The 1970's version (with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe) did explain who killed the chauffeur. I don't remember who it was, though. The explanation was a few brief throwaway lines. They got that over with as quickly as possible, then got on with the important stuff.